There are various reasons why the silk industry flourished in Macclesfield but it all began with a cottage industry making buttons.
Macclesfield buttons were initially covered with mohair or linen. Spanish silk buttons were imported into this country in the Tudor times and were the height of fashion.
Macclesfield soon began to cover its buttons in silk. There are a series of letters to the Mottershead family in Macclesfield which show that they were involved in making silk buttons in 1649.
Image: Silk buttons made by Brocklehurst, 1800
The geography of Macclesfield played an important part.
Hollins wood on the local hillside, as the name suggests, had a large supply of holly trees. The hard wood branches of the holly are perfect for cutting up into even circular discs for the button bases or moulds.
Macclesfield’s geography again was important as to why the silk industry could develop further and flourish.
The town has a good supply of clean water. The river could power the water wheels that drove the machinery in the mills. A good clean source of water is also essential in the dyeing process. The damp climate is ideal for storing the raw silk.
Image: View of Macclesfield from the Hollins in a print from 1850
Manufacture – A Cottage Industry
The silk thread was wrapped around the wooden moulds by women and children using needles to produce the finished button.
Macclesfield merchants would source the materials wholesale and distribute them to the workers.
Button making was a profitable addition to a family’s income. It is estimated that in a household where women and children made buttons, income could be increased by 50%.
An agricultural workers wage in the early 18th century was one shilling per day.
By the beginning of the 18th century button making had spread into the country districts surrounding Macclesfield.
Mr Street, a Macclesfield button merchant, described how “an active and diligent woman could earn four shillings a week”.
Image: Silk buttons made by Brocklehurst, 1800
These buttons were initially traded at fairs and markets by travelling pedestrian pedlars or chapmen.
In the 18th century many pedlars settled in Flash, a wild area of country between Leek, Macclesfield and Buxton. They were known as the “Flash-men” and some had a reputation for being involved in criminal activities and money counterfeiting. The “Broken Cross Gang” was one notorious group of Macclesfield pedestrian pedlars. They associated with the Flash-men and were known for their thievery. The district magistrates eventually broke up the gang.
As the trade became more organised, distribution was handled by merchants in London and Manchester.
London was the only legal port for the importing of silk. Merchants from London would bring up silk from the Spitalfields weavers and exchange it for the silk buttons.
Image: Pedlars selling their wares: Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome Collection
The Silk Industry Expands
As the silk button making industry started to decline, Macclesfield firms then began to move into the preparation of the silk itself.
Preparing the silk ready for use is a process called “throwing” and it involves putting a twist into the thread to make it stronger.
The first silk throwing mill in this country was built in Derby by the Lombe brothers in 1721. The architect was George Sorocold, a remarkable engineer, who in the late 17th century worked on the water supply at Macclesfield.
John Lombe went out to Italy to discover the secrets of how they were able to produce such high quality thrown silk. He stole the secrets of these Italian silk throwing machines and replicated them in his mill. He was allegedly poisoned by a female assassin, sent out to kill him for stealing the Italian’s technology.
Image: Scale model of Lombe’s throwing machine at Roe’s mill
Charles Roe (1715 -1781) played an important part in the development of the silk industry in Macclesfield.
He started out in the button trade. In 1743 he built the first silk throwing mill in the town. This mill was based upon Lombe’s mill in Derby, the patent on that technology having just run out.
From a humble beginning in the button trade, Charles Roe later became mayor of the town and developed a copper mining business.
Roe’s silk mill was highly successful and soon more silk mills began to appear in the town as other businesses followed his lead.
John Brocklehurst entered the button trade in 1745. The Brocklehurst family dynasty was one of the most important in Macclesfield’s silk industry for the next two centuries.
Macclesfield was weaving broadsheet silk fabric by the mid 18th century. Weavers from Spitalfields in London were brought up to Macclesfield to help train Macclesfield workers on the looms. By the 1820’s there were around 70 mills in the town.
The silk industry remained a large part of the town’s economy well into the 20th century.
Macclesfield silk was considered of the finest quality and had a worldwide reputation.
All because of buttons.
Image: Portrait of Charles Roe by Joseph Wright of Derby